Behind tragedy of a death, story of a remarkable scientific experiment

Changing the original location of the neutrino lab did not help matters. Environmental clearance for the project has given a fresh boost to protests by local people who fear — mistakenly — radiation exposure.

Written by Amitabh Sinha | Updated: April 3, 2018 9:16:02 am
Neutrino Observatory controversy The proposed site of the Neutrino Observatory in Bodi West Hill Area, Theni district of Tamil Nadu

A person affiliated to Tamil Nadu’s Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), who had immolated himself on Saturday while protesting against the upcoming India-based Neutrino Observatory (INO) project in Theni district, succumbed to burn injuries on Monday. His death is yet another twist in India’s quest to set up one of its most ambitious scientific research facilities. Initially planned to become operational in 2020, the INO, designed to detect and study the properties of neutrino, has been delayed by several years, due to a variety of reasons, including protests by locals, and the last year’s decision of the National Green Tribunal to suspend the environmental clearance pending a wildlife approval for the site which is barely five kilometres from a national park.

The environmental clearance was reinstated a couple of weeks ago by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, but that triggered a fresh round of protests from people who believe the project poses health risks to the local population. Similar opposition had compelled the project to be relocated once, from a site near Mudumalai National Park, north of Ooty, to its current location in Bodi West Hill area, Theni district.

MDMK General Secretary Vaiko began his padayatra on Saturday to protest against the Neutrino Observatory.

In a statement, the INO said that the protests, and death of the political worker, were a result of “misunderstanding of the facts”, and promised to continue its effort to make people aware about the project. “We are deeply pained by the self-immolation attempt by Shri Ravi. No protest should warrant placing one’s own life in grave danger. We believe that this traumatic turn of events was triggered by a misunderstanding of the facts about INO. We will do our utmost to educate our brothers and sisters, and fellow citizens in the area, so that such an incident never happens again. INO project is meant to add to the knowledge base of science and not to imperil the lives and livelihoods of people,” the statement said.

The Project

The INO project involves the construction of an underground neutrino detector, to be placed about 1.5 km below the earth’s surface. Neutrinos — not to be confused with neutrons that, along with protons, are found inside the nucleus of an atom — happen to be the second most abundant particle in the universe, after photons, or light particles. Yet, they are one of the most difficult to detect because of their extreme inertness. They have an extremely low tendency to interact with other objects, and simply pass seamlessly through any object that comes in their way, including human beings and machines that are placed to detect them. Going underground, however, slightly increases their chances of being “seen” because of the absence of noise and other kinds of disturbances.

A large number of neutrinos present in the universe are believed to have been produced at the time of the Big Bang, making them good candidates to extract more information about the origins of the universe. Neutrino research is one of the most exciting areas in physics as of now, and yielded Nobel Prizes in 2002 and 2015. Several research groups in other countries are dedicated to the study of neutrinos, which scientists believe, may be holding important clues to some of the basic questions about the universe.

The INO project is being executed by a research group based at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai, in collaboration with 25 other scientific institutions.

Neutrino Observatory Click image to enlarge.

The Hurdles

The project has been mired in one problem or the other for about a decade. The laboratory was initially planned to be set up in Singara (near Ooty), in the Nilgiris. This site was suggested by the Geological Survey of India based on the requirement of a large underground facility. Two hydel power stations — one functional, the other abandoned — in the vicinity had ensured that some infrastructure, including a series of tunnels, were already present. But the nearby Mudumalai National Park was declared a tiger reserve during the same time, and environmental clearance to the project was denied for this reason.

The project has also faced stiff opposition for a variety of reasons. While some people argued that the project was actually a decoy for storing nuclear waste, others raised concerns about the possibility of nuclear or radioactive emissions. None of it is true, and a substantial part of INO’s current activity involves mass awareness exercises.

The current round of protests is about something different. MDMK chief Vaiko was quoted by local newspapers as saying that the construction of tunnels at the site would affect the stability of the Idukki dam, some 40 km away. There are also complaints that the project would contaminate the groundwater at the location. “None of this is correct again. We have been making sustained efforts to inform the people about the project, and how things that they are being told are not correct. We will have to continue these efforts,” project director of the INO Vivek Datar told The Indian Express.

The Fate

Complying with the directives of the NGT, the INO applied for a wildlife clearance in January this year. The clearance is yet to come. A couple of more clearances from the Tamil Nadu state government are also awaited. Work can begin only after all the clearances are received. Meanwhile, the project completion date has now been pushed back, at least to 2023. Datar said it would take about five years to build the first stage of the detector after construction works start, and another two years for the second and final stage. “We will try to expedite construction work as much as we can. But that can happen only after we get the final approvals from everywhere,” he said.

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Projects elsewhere

China
Jiangmen Underground Neutrino Observatory in Kaiping, Jiangmen, aims to determine mass hierarchy of the three types of neutrinos and heir oscillation properties, using a 20,000-tonne liquid scintillator detector.

Japan
Hyper-Kamiokande detector at the Kamioka Observatory in Hida aims to determine mass hierarchy and study cosmic neutrinos, using 2 cylindrical tanks filled with one million metric tonnes of ultrapure water as detector.

Europe
The Large Apparatus studying Grand Unification and Neutrino Astrophysics, or LAGUNA, is a European project aimed at building a next-generation neutrino observatory.

amitabh.sinha@expressindia.com

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